One of the first actions taken by US President George W. Bush Thursday, May 30, on his return home from a six-day European tour, was to summon CIA director George Tenet for a briefing on the spy chief’s urgent Middle East mission due to begin over this weekend.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington say Tenet was directed to make every effort to tie up the last ends of a newly conceived Middle East package. This task, he was told, must take precedence over a planned international conference or discussions on reforms for the Palestinian Authority. Getting the new plan assembled and in place fast provides the only hope of warding off the terror assaults under preparation by the Iraqis, al Qaeda and Yasser Arafat.
As processing of the plan advanced, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources picked up the following developments in the order in which they occurred:
1. Wednesday, May 29, Israel’s security cabinet decided to release the eight Egyptian crewmen captured aboard the Karine-A arms smuggling ship seized on the Red Sea last January. This was the first of a number of reciprocal goodwill gestures Israel and Egypt should be making in the next ten days.
2. Later that day, William Burns, the US assistant secretary of state for the Near East, arrived in Cairo on a regional tour that Washington described as an attempt to “reshape the Palestinian Authority”.
Speaking to reporters before meeting Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Burns announced that the establishment of new Palestinian security services was his primary mission. He was referring to the American blueprint for a new Palestinian security apparatus that will lift the chaotic Palestinian security organs out of Arafat’s control so that he can no longer employ them for terrorism.
No less important was the presence in Cairo at the same time of a second American official, Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy. Together, Burns and Feith have been assigned with the final die-casting and execution of the new plan, the former representing secretary of state Colin Powell and the latter, the divergent views of vice president Dick Cheney and defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, now in Israel to receive an honorary doctorate at Haifa University, is joining the team on behalf of the Europeans.
3. Crossing the paths of Middle East-trotting American and European officials, Mubarak’s senior policy adviser, Osama Al-Baz, is due in Jerusalem any day now for talks with Sharon, foreign minister Shimon Peres and defense minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer. It is hoped that Al-Baz is bringing Israeli leaders the good tidings of the president’s decision to free Azzam Azzam, an Israeli Druze jailed in Egypt for the last five years after being convicted of spying for Israel, a charge the Israeli government has consistently claimed was trumped up.
The Egyptian emissary hopes to come away with an Israeli promise of freedom of travel for Arafat with a guarantee he will be allowed to return to Palestinian territory. This step is an essential component of the American-Egyptian-Israeli plan for reducing Arafat’s authority to that of a figurehead. He will be able to come and go as he pleases and consort with world leaders, but he will be cut off from active governance in the revamped Palestinian Authority.
4. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources reveal that, in the past two weeks, CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, conducted one of its most comprehensive staff exercises in recent years. A special CIA team, alongside Pentagon and US military intelligence experts, worked around the clock to build an instantly workable master design for a new Palestinian security apparatus.
Tenet presented the plan to Bush at his briefing on Wednesday.
Upon the release of Azzam, Israel will be expected to give the nod to Tenet’s plan for the creation of four new Palestinian security bodies (as first revealed in DEBKAfile this week):
a) Internal security – An intelligence and security agency modeled on America’s Federal Bureau of Investigation and Israel’s Shin Bet (General Security Services).
b) External security – An intelligence agency modeled on the American Central Intelligence Agency and Israeli Mossad.
c) A civilian police force
d) A general security force – Another term for a Palestinian army.
Washington intends to draft the al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades and Tanzim, both terrorist arms of Arafat’s Fatah, into this new force. In so doing, the United States hopes to steal away Arafat’s primary tools of terror.
More than one key element is still up in the air. A question mark hangs over the head of the new apparatus. Tenet would like to see Mohammed Dahlan, the preventive security chief of the Gaza Strip, take charge of the new Palestinian security network. He enjoys backing from Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and President Mubarak, who also count on him to block Jordanian influence on the West Bank. His candidacy is also supported by some Israeli officials. But not all the Bush team has been won over to this accomplished practitioner of the most advanced methods of terror for the key post.
Gaza’s powerful military and intelligence “boss”, who was invited to last week’s conference of Middle East security chiefs in Washington called by the CIA director, is feared even by such extremist groups as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Under the CIA master plan, Dahlan’s operation will come under the purview of the head of Egypt’s security services Gen. Omar Suleiman, working in close collaboration with the CIA director.
This power structure, if it comes to be, will expand the CIA’s involvement in the Middle East. Tenet, Suleiman, Dahlan, Israeli Shin Bet director Avi Dichter and a European representative – probably a British or German security chief – would form a team to oversee the working of the Palestinian security apparatus. The head of Jordanian and other military intelligence outfits might be co-opted to the group later. If it meets expectations, this panel, in the estimation of DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terrorism sources, promises to become the primary intelligence vehicle through which the United States will channel its war on al Qaeda, the Hizballah and Iraqi terrorism in the Middle East.
5. In another part of the plan, Egypt may, as its quid pro quo for Israeli cooperation, offer to deploy troops to block the smuggling of Palestinian weapons and terror personnel through the Sinai land frontier and Sinai coast into the Gaza Strip. This measure would be important for choking off a primary Palestinian source of smuggled war materiel.
6. Before the new plan can be said to be in the bag, Saudi representatives, Germany’s Fischer and perhaps even Burns or Tenet, will have to go to Damascus and tie up one of its loosest ends. They will have to persuade President Bashar Assad to use his army to cut off the Golan smuggling route used by Palestinians and international terrorists to infiltrate Israel.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources emphasize that many delicate maneuverings have yet to reach a head, which Washington hopes they will next week, before the new strategy can be said to be viable.